HL Deb 22 July 1977 vol 386 cc632-8


1963 (CHEESE) ORDER 1977




11.59 a.m.

Lord WALLACE of COSLANY rose to move, That the draft Weights and Measures Act 1963 (Sugar) (Amendment) Order 1977, laid before the House on 12th July, be approved;

That the draft Weights and Measures Act 1963 (Cheese) Order 1977, laid before the House on 12th July, be approved; and

That the draft Weights and Measures Act 1963 (Cocoa and Chocolate Products) Order 1977, laid before the House on 13th July, be approved.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, for the convenience of the House, unless any noble Lord objects, it is my intention to move the three orders which are on the Order Paper en bloc. These three orders are undeniably different in what they have set out to achieve, but they have one very important characteristic in common. They are all orders made under Section 21 of the Weights and Measures Act and are designed to give greater protection to consumers.

Turning first to the order on sugar, the House will be familiar with the type of metrication order we have initiated in the past to enable the food industry, where it was governed by legislation to prepack only in prescribed imperial quantities, to convert to the metric system. Our mettrication report to Parliament in April this year indicated however, that a new phase had been reached in the metrication programme. The Weights and Measures &c Act 1976, by removing the restriction on terminating the use of imperial sizes hitherto imposed by the Weights and Measures Act 1963, made it possible to legislate for the removal of imperial prescribed quantities from 21 April 1978 onwards. So long as the option remains to prepack or to sell either in imperial or metric quantities there is a risk, albeit a small one, of consumers being confused. The draft order on Sugar now before the House is the first of a series, all concerned with basic foodstuffs, which will have the effect of removing the imperial option and so, in each case, complete the metrication process.

As we recognised in the metrication report, an abrupt withdrawal of imperial sizes could cause problems of possession and sale for those in the distribution chain and at the retail level who would still be stocking and selling old imperial packs. Our discussions with those concerned in the packing, distribution and retail sale of sugar convinced us that, despite the expectations of packers, to be completely metric by 21st April, 1978 there was a need to make legal provision to cover old imperial packs which might still exist in the chain after that date.

The order has accordingly been designed to take effect in two stages: an initial cut-off of the freedom to pack or import in imperial sizes from 21st April, 1978, followed on 2nd July, 1978 by a final cut-off date for the sale of imperial packs of sugar. During the transitional period the act of selling or possessing old imperial packs will not be an offence. An additional safeguard has also been provided for those in the distribution chain by restricting the offences related to selling or possessing any imperial packs made up after 21st April, 1978, to the packing and importing sectors. From 2nd July, 1978 all imperial packs will be illegal. We are satisfied that these measures which, although providing proper protection for all those trading and selling old imperial packs, also recognise consumer interests by restricting the transitional period so as not to prolong confusion during the changeover.

The draft order on cocoa and chocolate products is a much more complex provision but it has an important link with the order on sugar. Not only does it introduce an alternative metric range for cocoa and chocolate powders but it also provides for the existing imperial range to be phased out. Subject to the same safeguards as for sugar, it makes it an offence to pack or import cocoa and chocolate powders in imperial sizes from 31st August, 1978 and bans all imperial sales from 31st August, 1979.

The main purpose of this order is to implement outstanding obligations arising from no less than 5 EEC Directives all concerned with the production and marketing of a wide range of cocoa and chocolate products. The main provisions of these Directives are concerned with composition and labelling and were implemented last year by the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food under the Food and Drugs Act in the Cocoa and Chocolate Products Regulations 1976. It was not until certain national options had been exercised in these regulations that we could proceed to implement the important weights and measures provisions.

The metric weight scale for cocoa and chocolate powders was included in the fourth amendment to the Directive at our insistence, since we wished to continue to limit sales to prescribed quantities in the same way as we have done for these products for more than 50 years.

Other provisions of the Directives which we are implementing in this order mark a significant step forward in consumer protection. These are requirements which consumers have been pressing us to introduce for several years and we are therefore able to support the EEC initiative.

The draft order will extend weight marking to cover all cocoa and chocolate products weighing 50 grammes or more. This will apply to Easter eggs; chocolate figurines—many of which are sold as stocking-fillers at Christmas; Christmas selection packs; and, probably most important of all, to many of the smaller bars of chocolate which escape weight marking under our present 3 oz. (85 grammes) exemption limit. The order also introduces the concept of prescribed quantities for chocolate bars weighing more than 85 grammes. The range is a metric one but dual marking will be required under our current marking regulations. Finally, the order introduces certain controls over the labelling of non-retail packs with quantity information.

The provisions of this order are complex and have required both lengthy and extensive consultation with trade, consumer and enforcement organisations. We are satisfied that the transitional arrangements for products other than powders are adequate: these provide for manufacture or import of non-complying products to cease from 31st December 1977 and for such sales to be banned altogether in the United Kingdom from 30th April 1978.

Finally, may I turn to the draft order on cheese. At the time when the 1963 Act was before Parliament only limited controls were imposed on the labelling of prepacked cheese. All varieties of cheese are subject to weight loss after packaging, but the extent to which they do so varies according to the nature of the particular variety and to the type of materials used for packaging. Under a minimum weight system it was considered impractical even to require relatively stable cheeses such as Cheddar or Cheshire and processed cheese which accounted for around 80 per cent. of the domestic market, to be weight marked. It was however agreed that the consumer had a right to weight information and the Schedule to the Act required that the weight should be made known to the customer at the point of sale.

Improvements in packaging materials and the increase in sales of varieties of more stable cheeses make it practical and necessary to require the varieties named in the order to be weight marked by the packer. This is a desirable extension of consumer protection—as in the case of certain chocolate products—and a necessary prelude to the extension of unit pricing to cheese.

The order also reduces the level of container allowance for all non-prepacked cheese to the level where it covers a sheet of greaseproof paper or plastic film placed on the scale for reasons of hygiene. However, it removes the very generous container allowance for prepacked Cheddar and Cheshire and makes no such allowance for other cheeses brought within the scope of the order. This is a matter on which representations were received from cheese packers, some of whom continued to indicate the gross weight on their packs, in spite of the fact that modern weighing equipment, including also many price-computing scales, are fitted with taring devices. The value of the container allowance to the trader is far in excess of that intended when the Act was drafted. The amendment of the container allowance has the strong support of consumer organisations.

My Lords, these three orders are all desirable extensions of consumer protection and I commend them all to your Lordships. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft Weights and Measures Act 1963 (Sugar) (Amendment) Order 1977, laid before the House on 12th July, be approved;

That the draft Weights and Measures Act 1963 (Cheese) Order 1977, laid before the House on 12th July, be approved; and

That the draft Weights and Measures Act 1963 (Cocoa and Chocolate Products) Order 1977, laid before the House on 13th July, be approved.—(Lord Wallace of Coslany.)

12.10 p.m.


My Lords, I will not detain your Lordships long on this matter. The House will be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Coslany, for explaining these Motions to us. Speaking personally, I see that metrication marches on, although I am not sure that my emotions follow the march with the same enthusiasm as the orders do, but undoubtedly I am quite wrong. I find that when my children come home from school they do not even know about inches and pounds—they have never heard of them—but it seems that they do know about metric units. So be it, my Lords.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord one or two questions? First, he said that dual marking would continue after the time when the main markings become metric. Can he give an indication of how long he expects this to be maintained? I do not suppose there is any very great risk that people will not gradually become aware of metric markings, but as I said before, it takes an awfully long time for people to become aware of centigrade temperature, for example, as compared with fahrenheit. The sooner they become aware of it the better. There must be a time when dual marking will be removed.

There are, of course, arguments from both sides on the question of the minimum weight of cocoa and chocolate products which are exempt from marking. One has to bear in mind that at one time the figure was below sixpence in selling value, in price. The comparable figure for that, I take it, would be something of the order of 7½ pence nowadays, whereas now we go to a one and three quarter ounce limit. I wonder whether the noble Lord would care to say a word or two about that. Is this roughly common throughout the EEC? Is the 50 gramme figure common throughout the EEC? There is no doubt that, so far as bars of chocolate are concerned, this is a matter of great importance to children. There are arguments both ways, especially considering the highly fluctuating cost of cocoa. When the price of cocoa increases it is necessary either to increase prices or to reduce quantities. I am not at all certain—I never have been certain—that it really is in the interests of consumers to have too rigid quantities, because it may well be that, if it is necessary to put up the price of something of small size, consumers will be getting worse value with the increased price than they would have clone if the quantity had been reduced.

May I ask the noble Lord one question on cheese. There is a very tight restriction on the kinds of cheeses which are to be pre-packed only if the container is marked with an indication of quantity by net weight. One notices that these are all British cheeses. Is there no comparable requirement for imported cheeses in this range? And is the range comprehensive so far as British cheeses are concerned? The cheeses I am talking about are natural cheeses.


My Lords, the noble Lord has certainly given me a number of questions. So far as dual marking is concerned, this will continue as long as necessary, no longer than necessary. It is very difficult to give the noble Lord a general indication of the time. We will just have to see how we go. The intention, of course, is not to prolong it for ever. On the question of cocoa and chocolate products and the small bars of chocolate, of course, I appreciate the point the noble Lord has made, but there has been a tremendous consumer demand for several years; it so happens that consumer demand in Britain has coincided with the EEC, which is rather a welcome indication, and that is why it has been brought in. So far as the exemption limit is concerned, to which the noble Lord referred, that is common throughout Europe.

On the question of cheeses, I have not an immediate answer on imported cheeses. If there is any extension on the British varieties, I have no doubt that that would probably be incorporated. Looking very rapidly at the order itself—I assume the noble Lord has seen the order—there is quite a comprehensive cover of British cheeses, and my impression is that it would cover the multitude of cheeses. We shall see. On the question of the imported cheeses, I cannot give an immediate answer. Perhaps I might he able to give the noble Lord detailed information at some future time.

On Question, Motions agreed to.